My favourite place: Delphi, Greece

In the second instalment of our new historical holidays series, Michael Scott explores the ancient site of Delphi – where ancient Greeks came to consult their gods, and find themselves

The ruins of the Temple of Apollo, Delphi, Greece. (Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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There’s nowhere quite like Delphi – known to the ancient Greeks as the navel of the Earth, and now the second most popular archaeological site in Greece after the Acropolis. It’s somewhere I’ve visited many times (the last in 2012), and it never fails to impress.

Today, visitors arrive by the bus-load, either on day trips from Athens – about 110 miles away – or as part of a week-long dash around Greece’s famous ancient sites.

But if you have a little more time, it would be well spent doing Delphi properly. It was, after all, one of most magnetic places in the ancient world, imbued with a sense of mystery and the promise of divine power. The prospect of meeting the famous Oracle and communicating with the gods drew people to the site from all over the Mediterranean for a thousand years.

Above all, Delphi offered visitors the opportunity to go on a voyage of self-discovery, as a carved inscription in the Temple of Apollo testifies. “Know thyself,” it reads. Wise words indeed!

Sitting 600 metres above sea-level, clinging to the face of Mount Parnassus and overlooking the Gulf of Itea, it is still a magnificent site, with views to match. I recommend walking to the remains as the sun rises above the peaks, making your way past the international flags that testify to Delphi’s status as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Turning the final bend in the road, travellers encounter the ancient site of Delphi itself, nestled in a crag of the mountains.

This is how the ancients would have first seen it, having wound their way up from the ancient port below. Just imagine it: against the grey/blue harsh rock of the mountains, a sanctuary and town perched in the heavens, shining resplendent in marble, littered with bronze, gold, ivory and silver offerings.

You can beat the crowds by beginning your visit at the Sanctuary of Athena, about a mile east of the main site. Tour buses start hitting Delphi first thing and the main sanctuary is quickly crowded, but these tours often miss out on Athena.

The site boasts a large rock that sits in the middle of one of Athena’s temples. For me, it is testament to the active rock and mud slides that the site has had to endure throughout its long history. The huge rock-face of the mountains behind Delphi follows the path of a seismic fault-line deep under the Earth.

Heading back towards the centre of Delphi, I always make sure I take a trip to the remains of the gymnasium. It is the earliest archaeologically attested gymnasium in all of ancient Greece and included a narrow covered colonnade where athletes could train in bad weather.

Delphi Archaeological Museum is another must-see. It holds some of the most incredible surviving sculptures from the ancient town – including a bronze statue of Heniokhos (pictured left), and Tournaire’s 19th-century watercolour reconstruction of the whole site, which can be found in the museum’s entrance.

If you’re in need of a breather after exploring the museum, it’s pleasant to find a spot away from the museum cafe to enjoy some fresh orange juice or perhaps the mountain water of the ancient Castalian spring – used by the ancient Delphic oracular priestess to bathe in before she made her pronouncements – and which now emerges, helpfully, in a public fountain on the roadside.

The best time to approach the Temple of Apollo – the main sanctuary at Delphi – is as the tour buses leave for the restaurants in the nearby town. The route there means walking up the ‘sacred way’, past the multitude of once-astonishing architectural and sculptural marvels that crammed themselves into the sanctuary.

Exploring the temple itself is a must for Delphi tourists, but you can also go one level above, to the theatre. There you can take a seat that not only offers a bit of shade but a wonderful view of the site.

Many also make the climb to the stadium hidden higher up the mountainside. But it’s lovely to  just take time to sit and ponder. The breathtaking views and the sense of other-worldliness and serenity that Delphi brings is magnificent.

You may, just may, in the hazy heat of the early afternoon, be lucky enough to get the site to yourself. Who knows, you might even come to ‘know thyself’!


Advice for travellers

Best time to go

To avoid the crowds, book outside the peak seasons of April to May and July toSeptember. Temperatures in the summer can reach 34°C.

Getting there

Direct flights to Athens leave from London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Manchester and Edinburgh. Buses to Delphi run from Athens bus station, and the journey takes around three hours each way. A day trip to Delphi with Viator Travel (viator.com) costs from £70.

What to pack

Water, good shoes with non-slip soles (the marble walkway at Delphi is a killer!), a good guidebook to the site, and time to spare.

What to bring Back

A sense of the atmosphere at Delphi – like few other places on Earth – and the feelings of peace and calm that come with it.

Readers’ views

Go in spring – amazing flowers made the site look fantastic and with fewer visitors it was wonderful @hummingbirdab

Don’t forget your camera, walking shoes and sunglasses – whatever the season @mamakanela

Delphi is truly magical esp. under stormy clouds! @Bukowski1944

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Dr Michael Scott is the author of Delphi: A History of the Centre of the Ancient World (Princeton University Press, 2014) @drmichaelscott/michaelscottweb.com. Read more about Michael’s experiences of Delphi at historyextra.com/delphi